If Death Ever Had a Voice

Last week, three people on three separate occasions told me that I absolutely must read Juan Rulfo, especially if I loved Gabriel García Márquez (which I do).  I took these recommendations and stored them in one of the tertiary parts of my brain for a later date; one not so fraught with midterms and other education-induced anguish, wailing, weeping, teeth-gnashing, etc.

Later, I was cruising around town listening to NPR–as is my wont–when one of the guests on whichever show I was listening to began to talk about Juan Rulfo, and how incredible he was.  At that moment, I figured four mentions from four sources in one week is as good an impetus as any, so I ran out and bought Rulfo’s lone novel, the very short Pedro Páramo, first published in 1955.  I finished this incredible book within a few hours.

Pedro Páramo begins with a promise from the protagonist (for the time being), Juan Preciado, to his mother, who is on her deathbed.  She makes him swear to go to a town called Comala, where he is to seek out the father he has never known:  Pedro Páramo.  His mother gives him few instructions before her death, and Juan is unable to refuse her, saying he “would have promised her anything.”:

“Don’t ask him for anything.  Just what’s ours.  What he should have given me but never did…Make him pay, son, for all those years he put us out of his mind.”

Juan arrives in Comala during the night and finds it desolate and silent; a shell of a formerly prosperous settlement. A woman named Eduviges Dyada, who seems to be one of the few people left in town, takes Juan in, and tells him stories of her past friendship with his mother.  These stories lead to the following exchange:

“She told me you would be coming.  Today, in fact.  That you would be coming today.”

“Who told you?  My mother?”

“Yes.  Your mother.”

I did not know what to think.  But Eduviges left me no time for thinking.

This is the first indication that there is something different about Comala, something that Juan can’t quite explain.  And in his exhaustion, he doesn’t make an attempt.  As Juan is sleeping, a woman who identifies herself as Damiana bursts into the room, asking him how he got into the house.  When he tells her about Eduviges, she responds that Eduviges has been dead for some time.

The novel takes a gradual turn toward a new protagonist, dreamlike in its shifting perspectives.  Ultimately, we see Comala through the eyes of Pedro Páramo himself, who experiences the stories and events of the town’s ghosts, still meandering through the night as if still alive.  Ultimately, Rulfo juxtaposes this perspective with that of an alternating omniscient narrator, who tells the story of Comala’s downfall through the eyes of the townspeople, before they walked the earth merely as spirits.

This novel is very short.  But despite its brevity, enclosed is some of the most compelling and beautiful prose I’ve ever experienced.  And if you have a few hours to spare, it’s something you should experience, as well.  I read that it was so influential for the aforementioned Gabriel García Márquez, he is able to recite the entire novel from memory.  So, really, you have no excuse.

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